October 16, 2009
  Displaced by the Economy, Architects Balance Design and the Bottom Line
Laid-off and unemployed, architects are setting up their own design studios, and new business ventures beyond it

by Zach Mortice, Associate Editor

How do you ... find another market niche after being jettisoned by the reeling design and construction economy?

Summary: With architects clients’ money frozen by sluggish credit markets, double-digit deceases in architecture firm unemployment, and nonresidential construction activity projected to decrease by 12 percent next year alone, the professional dissonance between architects’ roles as creative designers and market-driven corporate managers is heightening every day. Recent graduates nursed by the academy’s aspirations of design supremacy who have been struggling to find work and experienced architects who have been laid off from design firms are all finding that in a sinking design and construction economy, maintaining a career means creating your own entrepreneurial opportunities more so than designing other’s visions.

Jeanine Gunderson-Christensen, Assoc. AIA, of St. Paul, has tried her hand at three different businesses since being laid off from a commercial and retail architecture firm in November. Only two of these are in any way related to the design and construction industry. Only one involves design. “If I can make some money, I can continue to design on the side,” she says.

In the winter, she began working at a real estate office. A few months ago, she started establishing a sales and marketing start-up company she calls Ammo Group, Inc., which will sell signs, banners, and other graphic signage materials to architecture and design firms. Recently, some friends asked her to redesign and renovate their basement—a project she’ll take on as Brown Trout Design. With each endeavor, Gunderson-Christensen says she’s learning business lessons she didn’t get in architecture school (like fee structures and taxes), which again refocuses the debate over the state of practice and business education in college architecture programs.

“I don’t think architects know enough about business,” she says. “What I’m doing now is learning how to have my own firm someday.”

Entrepreneurship, management, design
Al Rubeling, FAIA, founded his firm Rubeling and Associates in Baltimore 26 years ago, during another building industry downturn. Today, his firm employs 28 people, and Rubeling teaches professional practice classes at the University of Maryland architecture program, and is the author of How to Start and Operate Your Own Design Firm. He says success in establishing and running a firm in a recession is based on balancing entrepreneurial, management, and technical design skills. To succeed and flourish, firms must have all three, and with architects, he says, it’s often the first one that’s lacking. In addition to basic business acumen (understanding liability issues, state and local licensing, tax issues, etc.) a deficiency in entrepreneurship and an unwillingness to network are often what stalls the growth of brand new firms. Most simply: “The people who have the relationships will get the work,” Rubeling says.

As Gunderson-Christensen’s example shows, the first project a sole-proprietor comes across for new business might be easy to find, from either luck or an existing network of colleagues, clients, friends, and family. “But it’s that next one,” Rubeling says. Firms that fail to sustain themselves after their first or second project, he advises, “are not forming new relationships with people. They’re not being entrepreneurial. So that third project never comes in.”

And you don’t have to have already been a firm principal to build the kind of connections needed to maintain a new business. Rubeling says that project managers who have been working with clients day in and day out on projects may be in a better position to get new work from these clients than their bosses, if they’re laid off. And, in that case, don’t worry about avoiding competition with a former employer. “Once you’re laid off, all bets are off,” he says. Nor do you have to attend the most exclusive and moneyed receptions and conferences to find business partners. Rubeling says just about any social interaction can be meaningful. “When you start talking to a great number of people about what you do and what you’re looking for, people will usually try to help you,” he says.

“I’ve used my network to find out what I don’t know,” says Gunderson-Christensen.

In March, after months of seeing their all-private sector client base freeze and cancel project after project, Gary Lee Partners, a Chicago-based interior architecture firm, closed their New York and San Francisco offices. Suddenly, Steve McCollom, AIA (an associate partner in charge of marketing, public relations, and business development at the San Francisco branch), was an unemployed architect. And founding his own firm wasn’t the first thing on his mind.

“I’ve never had my own practice; I’ve always worked for other people,” he says. “I was still in that mindset. ‘Now who am I going to work for?’ It was only after some searches where there didn’t really seem to be that many people looking for guys like me that I thought: ‘Maybe you don’t have to work for somebody else. Maybe you can just freelance.’”

Since July, McCollom has been using his network of contacts and participation in trade association groups (like the AIA’s Interior Architects Knowledge Community to work on marketing, communications, and business development projects for firms that aren’t able to hire on this kind of expertise full time. So far, he’s already collected six clients, including healthcare, high-end residential, and commercial office space architecture firms. He’s done research on how firms can enter new geographic markets, where they can find new work, and how best to promote their finished projects. His biggest challenges so far stem from the amount of work he has—not from a lack of it. “I’m a one man band,” he says. “I’ve actually found myself to be very busy. If I could clone myself, I could probably have twice as many clients as I do.”

A real name for his new marketing business (currently just McCollom Consulting) is currently pending on him having time to develop it. It’s almost like the cobbler who’s so busy his children have no shoes, he says. “I really should have a great name. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had so many clients retain me that I haven’t focused on it as I should.”

And what do architecture firms want clients to know about their work during the most severe recession since the Great Depression? How to stand out in a crowded and ultra-competitive RFQ or RFP process. As the number of clients actually willing to build dwindles, otherwise unheralded projects (especially public and institutional ones) are drawing interest from more and more firms, and they’re asking McCollom to help them separate themselves from the competition. “People are refocused on their core competencies and what their market differentiators are,” he says.

Out of office, out of work
As the 2008-09 president of the AIAS, JW Blanchard, Assoc. AIA, traveled across the country representing AIAS and advocating for a better, more sustainable built environment on behalf of the next generation of American architects. He was one of the most visible young designers in the nation. His term ended in July, and he prepared to move to Blacksburg, Va., where his wife will be a graduate student at Virginia Tech. He looked for an architecture firm in the area to work for.

He’s still looking.

“I did believe it would be different than this,” he says about his job search. “There hasn’t been anyone who’s said they’re not interested. It’s just been: ‘I can’t do anything for you.’” And Blanchard is making other plans in case a typical design studio job is too far off to wait for.

Now he’s working to establish a renewable energy consulting company. The idea came from research he did at Southern Polytechnic State University where he earned a bachelor of architecture degree, and he describes the venture as being a “business manager of the process to implement renewable energy strategies.” Blanchard would work with architects, engineers, financiers, and building owners to untangle and decode green building regulations, subsidies, and markets. In the beginning, he says he’d like to focus on basic single-family residential projects.

Because he ran a sole-proprietor construction company while he was at Southern Polytechnic State, doing carpentry and cabinetry, Blanchard had an early edge in entrepreneurship. “That gave me some confidence in moving forward,” he says.

The type of work he sees this consulting firm doing is strongly supported by the ARRA economic stimulus package, as advocated by the AIA Rebuild and Renew federal relations plan. The Department of Energy alone is funding $8 billion worth of sustainable building upgrades. The General Services Administration is doling out $4.3 billion for high performance energy upgrades to buildings. “The idea works,” Blanchard says. “The concept works, and there are a lot of folks paying attention who are ready to move.

“It’s more of a challenge because I don’t have the resources of a large firm. At times I question why I’m doing what I’m doing, because I wonder: ‘Is there an easier way to live life that’s as rewarding?’”

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The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the AIA Best Practices article, “Business Planning for Small Firm Owners.”